The plane swoops over muddy, crocodile-infested rivers, rust-red escarpments and wide billabongs that shimmer like mirrors in the sun. I've come in over the woodland savanna of Kakadu into the stone country of Arnhem Land, rugged and eroded and, for the moment, wanton with wetlands.
Birds disturbed by the buzzing of the plane wheel in giant flocks. The landing strip is an orange slash amid the startling green of the wet season's tail end. We bump to a halt. As the propellers clank into stillness, the silence is startling.
You can get to this remote corner of Australia by road – during the dry season at least – but a charter flight from Darwin or Jabiru is magnificently scenic and gives you just a taste of the vastness of Arnhem Land, which is bigger than many countries and yet home to just 16,000 mostly Indigenous people. Neighbouring Kakadu National Park is far from crowded, but this is something else entirely. I feel I've flown off the map and maybe into a time warp.
Fortunately, though, creature comforts don't need to be abandoned to experience this wilderness. For those who want to get remote without too much bother or the need to rough it under canvas, Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Lodge is the answer. The lodge is just beyond Kakadu's north-east border and a long way from telegraph poles and water mains, yet manages to supply decent comforts such as ceiling fans and surprisingly good showers, both welcome after days out in sub-tropical heat.
It's also all-inclusive, so guests needn't worry about getting fed or getting about. Guides take us out twice a day by jeep or boat into some of Australia's most magnificent great outdoors. Lively swapping of adventure stories between guests provides conversation over three-course dinners afterwards. Sightings of giant saltwater crocodiles are always cause for exuberant chatter.
Human skulls and bones are tucked into crevices in the rocks.
My first excursion on the very afternoon of my arrival is by shallow-bottomed boat out onto nearby Cooper Creek with my guide Dean Hoath. We lurch off into a labyrinth of canals created by paperbark trees whose watery reflections cause even more disorientation. The water is dark and faintly menacing. Then in a burst of dazzling sunlight we're out onto wide-open wetlands framed by distant rust-red escarpments. It's a landscape repeated across 90,000 square kilometres of Arnhem Land, and it feels as if we have it all to ourselves.
How is such a fabulous chunk of Australia so overlooked? Annual tourist visitors number only in the tens of thousands, and yet this is one of our greatest ecosystems. These immense wetlands, sloshing back and forth with the seasons, are dense with astonishing numbers of birds.
Egrets weigh down trees like unlikely Christmas baubles. Cockatoos wheel in giant flocks, their screeches the signature note of an otherwise silent landscape. Magpie geese and whistling ducks are everywhere, flung skywards like confetti by the temporary disturbance of our approaching boat. Later we spot more modest loners: rock-perched cormorants, kingfishers, strutting brolgas and drifting sea eagles.
Below us there are plopping fish and freshwater crocodiles, slim-snouted and silent. It's easier to spot saltwater crocodiles later in the year, says Dean, as the weather cools and they take to sunning themselves on the creek banks. For now, they often remain submerged. Just knowing they're there adds a frisson to excursions, though. The bar at Davidson's sports a crocodile skull the size of a coffee table picked up from this very creek.
This abundance of wildlife has sustained Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land for tens of thousands of years. The bounty is celebrated in rock art beneath escarpment overhangs that depict a parade of fish, birds, echidnas, turtles, goannas and the same type of wallabies that hop around my cabin in the early morning, demurely nibbling on the grass.
The most spectacular rock-art figure is a six-metre rainbow serpent in white and ochre, just a 15-minute drive from the lodge. Seeing it involves a wander along a creek and up through eroded rock that rears on either side of a narrow track, throwing out enough shade to protect ferns and other delicate plants.
The rainbow serpent – if that's what it is – looks like a great monster of the deep, part crocodile part shark, with a writhing body and gaping jaws with huge teeth. It's one of the most fabulous examples of rock art I've ever seen, although almost completely unheralded.
How old is this art? No one knows. Even the local Indigenous community – many of whose members were removed as children – forgot the rainbow serpent was there. It was rediscovered by Davidson's Lodge founder (and buffalo hunter turned environmentalist) Max Davidson entirely by accident when he was out riding one day, even though it had long been within cooee of his camp.
After the hot scramble to the rock art site we treat ourselves with a swim at a nearby billabong. It goes stagnant as the dry season progresses, but for the moment is deep and fresh and long enough for some serious laps. It's another spot of utter beauty. The water is alive with tiny fish, white waterlilies and the green reflections of surrounding trees.
Next day I'm eager to explore another Indigenous site. Max Davidson also stumbled across what's now called Left-hand Site, tucked under an impressive overhang above Cooper Creek. I scramble up the rocks with Dean one afternoon for an exploration. The art here has been overlaid for millennia, and mostly only the long-lasting red ochre remains in extraordinary layers of human and spirit figures, animals and handprints.
"I love this place," says Dean. "Ubirr Rock in Kakadu is famous for its rock art, but here you get more variety of artworks, created over a much longer period of time. And we have it all to ourselves!"
The time spans are almost unimaginable. Some of Arnhem Land's rock art is thought to be 50,000 years old, while some depicts first contact with Europeans (horses, sailing ships, guns) and was painted a mere two centuries ago. Portrayals of Tasmanian tigers show that these carnivorous marsupials were once widespread across mainland Australia. Dugongs indicate that the coast may once have been much closer. The crocodiles are still here of course, glaring from the billabongs as they've been doing since dinosaurs roamed.
We come across layers of ancient ash from camp fires, and middens and abandoned paperbark mattresses at Left-hand Site. Cave sand coughs up much more recent glass shards and cutting stones and an Edwardian-era coin. Human skulls and bones are tucked into crevices in the rocks. Some have tumbled out and lie skew-whiff on the sand. Nobody knows how long they've been here, either.
This place has the most layered human history in the world, but even that timespan is just a moment in eternity. The rock outcrops themselves are fiercely weathered by unfathomable aeons of heat and water. What were once mountains are now just stumps of tumbled rock, carved and curved and crumbled by seasonal floods, and cracked open in the sun, a stupendous landscape to astonish the soul.
Lords Safaris operates personalised small-group tours in Arnhem Land (and elsewhere in the Top End) which can include a stay at Davidson's Lodge. Guide Dean Hoath is very knowledgeable about wildlife and Indigenous art. Phone 0438 808 548, see lords-safaris.com
Davidsons' Arnhemland Safari Lodge has four-star en suite cabins surrounding a main lodge with restaurant, bar and swimming pool. From $800pp including meals, Arnhem Land permits, and tours and activities. Phone 08 8979 0413, see arnhemland-safaris.com
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy NT Tourism.